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Fathoming Transgender

As someone who has now been out as transgender for almost ten years, it is necessary for my well-being to not become embittered and negative.

When the matter of gender began to be something I questioned, I had no words for the feelings that came with it. There was no one in my life who was able or willing to answer those questions for me, and so I felt othered, and strange, like an intruder in my family’s home. I thought I must either be the only person who has ever felt this way, or everyone feels this way and I’m the only one who can’t cope. It took meeting other trans people for me to try and start to put a word to my experience. Even once I had internally accepted I wasn’t cis, that did not translate to some tumultuous coming out moment after which I was forever changed in my eyes and the eyes of all who knew me. In fact, I spent years at a time switching between being “out” and going neatly back into the closet as a matter of safety and comfort.

What I have learned is that coming out is not some singular transformation, especially when you are transgender. I have had friends, clients, and colleagues tell me that I seem exceedingly patient in my correction of how others see me, or gender me. The truth is, I have to be patient, because I have spent almost ten years coming out constantly. When you are a firefly, but always seen as a silverfish, you will spend your entire life telling people that you are a firefly.

It is also not safe to be impatient. There have been many times that my identity has not been seen or respected and I have felt my hands shake and my eyesight blur. In those moments, I wanted to shout and stamp around and twist the other person’s arm around into feeling stupid for thinking I was something I was not, for thinking they had any right to decide who I am based on a snap judgment; just from looking at me. However, what I overlooked, and what others overlook, when they think of how they would be in my shoes, is the danger of wanting respect. I have found myself often in the position of evaluating, carefully, the potential risk of being transgender in any specific place, and acting accordingly. I was not truly “out” 24/7 until last year, which has been horrifyingly freeing and excitingly scary the whole time. Nothing, to me, has existed decisively one way or the other. It has always been nuanced, it has been a gray area.

Every place is hostile to closeted transgender livelihood. You are constantly reminded that you are not who the world is made for. My driver’s license does not reflect who I am, my birth certificate is for someone I haven’t been in a long time, and changing any of this is quickly expensive and convoluted to properly reflect across all the emails that won’t let you change your name, the medical portal, your dentist’s office, your insurance. And sometimes it’s not even worth it. One question I’ve been mulling an answer to for years, especially now that I am beginning a medical transition, is that if I were to change my legal gender to male, then I may no longer be able to access OB-GYN services unless I pay for it out of pocket, since many health insurances would never think to approve those services for someone deemed male in the system.

It often seems the most difficult hurdle to overcome with someone I am speaking to about gender is this: to be transgender is to be utterly unrelatable to all those who do not see themselves inside this category. What I want people to understand is that there is no inherent trait that makes one person transgender, and another nonbinary, and another cisgender. The most common comfort I receive when speaking about my experiences as an out transgender person is that they just can’t imagine what it is like. This is not the comfort I think many see it as. I am NOT unimaginable in my existence.

I refuse to accept that sentiment, because I genuinely believe, if you were to sit with yourself and truly unpack exactly what you seem to think is making us so different, you would realize that you absolutely can imagine what it is like to be transgender. Because, I would hope, you can imagine what it is to be human, in this world that is always moving forward. And the only difference is the way we say we are human. What cis people often do not understand is that they are not immune to transphobia just because they are not the intended audience. You could be misgendered. If you were to change your last name for marriage, your maiden name could just as easily be seen as a dead name. Rulings in sports that attempt to remove transgender women from competing often will be structured in a way that excises many cis women, often cis women of color along the leyline of intersectionality between transphobia and racism. The mythos of the transgender experience being something entirely unheard of, unrelatable to, is only that; a mythos, a construct. Dismantle the label in your mind, and you’ll realize that there is absolutely nothing that makes us any different. The world spins forward at the same speed for all of us.

So when you think you cannot imagine what it is like to be me, I want you to try. I want you to become uncomfortable. Do not excuse yourself from the hard work of understanding through the cop-out of separation.

If I tell you I am a man, do you subconsciously begin putting transgender in front of the descriptive word? I want you to begin to question. Go onto the internet, go into the library, go and seek new people and new spaces, and get curious. Ask about drag history, about gender theory, look into all the different gender systems that have existed societally. Read on how racism affects all of this. I want you to take hearing somebody else misgendered or deadnamed personally. I cannot get angry, it is not safe. I want you to be angry. I want you to become loud, to find your own voice detached from gender and construct and belief. Speak to your transgender friends, clients, colleagues, and really think about how exactly you perceive them. Use they/them pronouns. Truly begin to see people only as what they tell you they are, and not as what you perceive them to be, what you decide they are for yourself.

And please stop telling me how hard it is to get my pronouns right. The only reason to find it difficult to respect transgender identity is a crucial failure of an ability to see the transgender identity as a human experience. I use he/him and they/them. When you see me and say she/her, I may correct you. I may be patient. But I know, in that moment, that whether you know it or not, there is a part of you, subconscious or uninformed or unaware, that does not respect me.

I want you to be aware of that, and own it. You can imagine. I promise you can. So go out there, and begin to fathom.

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